Chronic stress has been recognized as a major healthcare crisis of the 21st Century. Even before the global corona virus pandemic, the vast majority of us have been burning the candle at both ends. Unfortunately, the current situation has added more stress to our already overextended lifestyles. Unemployment rates at an all-time high, schools and businesses closed, vacations cancelled, families taking on new roles and responsibilities, financial concerns escalating, and so on. This great pause has forced us to slow down and reflex on the stressful lifestyles we were just weeks prior juggling. Now is an opportune time to work on new and improved ways get a handle on stress.
Our bodies were not designed to be in a state of chronic stress. Long term chronic stress has been implicated in the development of many health problems ranging from cardiovascular disease to gastrointestinal issues to obesity and cancer. Cortisol is the primary player here and it subsequently drives inflammation and disease development. The stress response is handled by your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is an ancient, lifesaving system which was designed to protect us from danger and help use mobilize energy to escape and respond to threats. It also plays a key role in our memory, decision making and emotional response. The HPA axis for many of us is activated and in a state of survival mode far too often. The key question is what can we do to modify this stress response without creating more stress in the process!
Fortunately, nature has provided us with many non-toxic plants that can help our bodies modulate various types of stress, whether physical, chemical or biological. These herbs, which are known as adaptogens, have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic cultures for their healing properties. They were studied more extensively during WWII on military crew members with a goal of finding a pill that could improve mental and physical performance. Herbal medicinal plants became a focus of how to increase stamina and survival in harmful environments and lead to ongoing research into how these plants could increase resistance against noxious factors.
Each of these specific herbs offers unique benefits. Their bioactive components interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to modify the body’s response to prolonged stress. In a sense, adaptogens can help to dampen the stress response and improve the extent of perceived stress. Clinical studies on adaptogenic herbs document a variety of effects including reduction in fatigue, regulation of blood glucose, improved cognition function and endurance as well as reduction in depression and anxiety. Adaptogens also play a role in immune and hormone function which is particularly important given the current global health epidemic.
Adaptogens are often selected based on where someone is along the stress response or adrenal stress response phase. In stage 1 or repetitive stress, restorative adaptogens are used to support the body’s ability to retain homeostasis. Restorative adaptogens are also used in stage II, or repetitive long-term stress, characterized by high cortisol and physiological dysfunction. In the final, stage III of the adrenal stress response, more stimulating adaptogens are used to address severe stress and/or exhaustion. Sometimes additional nutrients will be added as well to this phase to help restore function.
So how do you know which one to take? The adaptogenic herbs are generally divided into categories with respect to their key effects on the body. The vast majority like Ashwaghanda and Maca tend to be
very calming and are a good place to start for most people. Others like Rhodiola and Cordyceps can be more stimulating and should be used with caution for people who are already feeling overwhelmed. There is some cross-over amongst the adaptogens however so often it can be a process of trial and error to find which one works best for you. Many of the adaptogens are also sold as blends to diversify the impact and expand the response. Below are some of the most popular adaptogens:
1. Ashwagandha, Holy Basil and Reishi mushrooms: help calm the body and soothe the adrenals
2. Asian ginseng, Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), Rhodiola rosea, and Maca – stimulate the body, enhance mental performance, focus and physical stamina
3. Astragalus: best known for immune boosting qualities
Adaptogens can be incorporated into your daily regimen in a variety of ways. The simplest way is to take the herb in the form of a supplement. These are available as individual herbs but often sold in blends to help address several facets at once. Another option is to include them in a tea or a powder which you can add to smoothies, soups or salad dressings. As always, we recommend that you obtain your herbs from a reputable company that is third party tested. The supplement industry is not as well regulated as the pharmaceutical industry and concerns have been raised about some products being tainted with heavy metals as well as not containing what they claim.
We recommend a variety of adaptogens at Thrive. We are happy to speak with you in more detail about which one would be the best selection for you.
1. Ashwaghanda (Pure Encapsulations)
2. HPA Adapt (Integrative Therapeutics) –Ashwaghanda, Rhodiola, Eleuthero, Holy Basil, and Maca
3. Stress Support Complex (Klaire Labs) –Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, L-theanine and Gaba
4. Cortisol Management (Klaire Labs) – Ashwagandha (as Sensoril) and Relora (Magnolia+phillodendrom)
How long should you take adaptogens? Many people take adaptogens on a daily basis or for an extended period of time. They tend to be most impactful when you take breaks in dosing however. The frequency of these breaks is one of debate but there is no harm in continuous use for a period of three months and up to a year. It is best to start with a low dosage and increase slowly. The effects are not necessarily immediate as adaptogenic response tends to be slow-acting. It can take a few weeks for a noticeable difference to occur for many people.
Adaptogens are a great addition to your health care regimen, particularly in times of increased stress. It is important to remember that they are just that however – an adaptogen. Relying on an adaptogen to deal with chronic stress is not a substitute for getting at the root cause of stress in the first place. They are not meant to replace a healthy diet, quality sleep, regular exercise and attention to self-care.